Antarctic Lakes, Rivers, Wetlands — All Under A Kilometer Of Ice

Biologists have discovered what may be the largest unexplored ecosystem on earth, and it's all hidden under the Antarctic ice sheet. NPR's Scott Simon talks to the lead scientist, Brent Christner.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Here's a story that might help cool you down this weekend. Biologists have discovered what might be the largest unexplored ecosystem on Earth under the ice of Antarctica. Brent Christner of Louisiana State University led the team of biologists, and their findings were published this week in Nature, the science journal. Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

BRENT CHRISTNER: Thank you, Scott, for having me.

SIMON: What's under there?

CHRISTNER: Well, underneath Antarctic - if your move the ice sheet - it's not that different than most other continents. There are lakes. There are rivers. There are wetlands. The area that we drilled into in West Antarctica can be compared to a region like I'm in right now - southern Louisiana.

SIMON: (Laughter). So there are crocodiles?

CHRISTNER: (Laugher). No crocodiles - but the presence of water and the interaction of that water with marine systems is something that we know occurs in this region. The thing is we've just never been able to observe it because it's obscured because it's under nearly a kilometer of ice.

SIMON: So what's under there? I mean, I'm guessing bacteria.

CHRISTNER: The life forms that we detected are members of two very microscopic groups called the bacteria and the archaea. These are some of the most ancient and simplest forms of life that we know of. We envision that, even though this is a lake ecosystem, that it's probably too extreme to support higher life forms, certainly, like fish.

SIMON: So if we were to put down a bucket and bring it up what would we see?

CHRISTNER: Well, the water, when we brought - which is very close to how we sampled the lake - when we bought the water up, it looked like iced tea. It had a brown color imparted to it. And we realized quickly that this was due to the fact that there were a lot of very small particles suspended in the water. And this is very important for a couple of reasons. One - we know that these particles are present because of the way that the ice sheet pulverizes the rock with which it's grounded on. The second reason that this is important for biology - as we have good evidence that a lot of minerals that are actually leached out from the bedrock during this process can be used by microorganisms to drive their metabolism.

SIMON: Does the fact that you were able to find life - albeit at a very low level - suggest to you that, maybe, some of the places we see in outer space that we say they're too cold to support life, maybe, in fact, aren't?

CHRISTNER: I think that this discovery - it increases the boundaries that we know that life can exist in our own biosphere and, therefore, increases the likelihood that we could go somewhere else in our own universe and find life.

SIMON: Brent Christner was the lead researcher on this study. He's a professor at Louisiana State University. Good summer to you, Professor. Thanks very much.

CHRISTNER: And thank you.

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